With October marking Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa, it is an important occasion to understand the long term effects of women abuse on women’s mental health and how they can get the assistance they need.
Birmingham University found women who have been abused by a partner, are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety or severe conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, than other women. The outcome of the study not only highlights the connection between mental illness and women abuse, but also brings to light how health practitioners such as psychiatrists and GPs need to ask routinely about domestic violence and abuse, as these incidents are not always shared by patients.
Much of this relates back to the stigma put on survivors of abuse as well as the lack of support for women who are suffering from a mental illness because of the abuse. 1st for Women believes that as everyday South Africans, we can also find ways to help women who are suffering from mental illness as a result of abuse and provide them with the support they need. First, we need to recognise the symptoms.
Women’sHealth.gov shares three of the most common long term mental health effects of women abuse:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can be a result of experiencing trauma or having a shocking or frightening experience, such as sexual assault or physical abuse. Symptoms can include re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares; emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma; and difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy, or being easily irritated and angered. You may also have trouble remembering things or have negative thoughts about yourself or others.
- Feelings of not wanting to get out of bed, attend social gatherings or a loss of interest in things or hobbies which used to excite you are symptoms of depression. According to SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group), not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom listed. Some people experience a few symptoms, some many. Also, the severity of symptoms varies between individuals. SADAG lists the following as symptoms:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood.
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed.
- Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism.
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness and self-reproach.
- Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping.
- Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain.
- Decreased energy, fatigue and feeling run down.
- Increased use of alcohol and drugs
- Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts.
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering and decision-making ability.
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain.
- Deterioration of social relationships.
- This can be general anxiety about everything, or it can be a sudden attack of intense fear, such as panic attacks. Anxiety can get worse over time and interfere with your daily life.
As a coping mechanism, women may turn to substance abuse in order to deal with the trauma. Research shows that about 90% of women with substance use problems had experienced physical or sexual violence. All types of mental health illnesses can be treated effectively, and it often begins by talking to a mental health professional.
But for a person who knows of someone dealing with a mental health illness because of abuse, we also spoke to People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) who shared some practical advice for what one can do to give the right support.
- Talking: The survivor needs to talk, think and dream about the violence repeatedly so that she can work through the experience. Make it clear that you are available and willing to hear what she needs to say.
- Reassurance: She is likely to feel guilty and unsure. She needs to hear that the violence was not her fault.
- Regaining control: She needs to resume control of her body, her feelings and her life. You need to support her choices and be patient.
- Safety and support: She will need practical help to protect herself against further attacks and she will need a safe environment in which to experience her emotions. She needs professional help and to speak with a trauma counsellor.
POWA also recognises the impact of supporting someone who has been abused, and how this can also affect your own mental health.
“Don’t ignore your own needs. It is essential for you to have your own support system during this time which you can get from talking to other people who are close to you or to get your own counselling support.”